Welcome!

If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Desecrated (2013)

MARCH 23, 2015

GENRE: SLASHER, SURVIVAL
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

My memory sucks, so I can't remember how much I've talked about Dead Right Horror Trivia here on HMAD. Summing up: once a month there's a horror trivia game here in LA, and unlike most trivia games prizes are awarded to the teams every round, rather than just the top 3 teams or something at the end of the night. Said prizes are mostly DVDs and Blu-rays, with other stuff thrown in for good measure (I once netted a pellet gun!). My team wins pretty often (and no, not because I'm on it - they've won without me), so I often come home with a new stack of DVDs, most of which I just took because no one else really wanted them or they seemed like they'd be good HMAD fodder. But that pile is building up, so (don't hold me to this!) I'm going to try to watch at least one a week and review it, good or bad. Unfortunately, I'm kicking this off with Desecrated, a movie that will be traded in with alarming quickness. I might even make a special trip just to get this waste of time out of my house.

I've seen worse slasher/survival horror movies, sure, but rarely have I seen one of this type where absolutely nothing about it works. The cover promises a gas masked killer, but the guy in the movie kills everyone sans a mask or disguise of any sort (the cover also 2nd bills Michael Ironside, but you know and I know that he's only in it for like 5 minutes, because that's how these things work). Indeed, you know who the bad guy is pretty early on, but then the movie spends about 10-15 minutes as if they hadn't already revealed who the killer is to the audience, as we see him in friendly mode, helping our idiot group of college kids with their electricity issues. In the hands of a capable director, or editor, or screenwriter, this could be unnerving fun, seeing our bad guy put on a happy face and act like he's on the heroes' side, but as it plays out, it just feels like we aren't supposed to know he's the bad guy yet.

The kills are also totally botched; our guy is an ex-military survivalist type, with landmines everywhere and what not, but almost all of the kills are the result of him pulling out a gun and shooting someone. Even actual action movies get more creative with the killings than this alleged slasher, as if the director was unaware that even the shittiest movie in the sub-genre will at least give a few kills that are at least CONCEPTUALLY interesting, even if the execution is bungled. But no, he can't even manage that much, and the movie's terrible pacing (most of the kids are killed in the final 15 minutes) means you wait around for zero payoff. There are no chase scenes of note either; the climax is nothing more than the three surviving characters holed up in a room, with the villain holding Haylie Duff (the "Final Girl", for lack of a better term) at gunpoint while her dad (Ironside) spells out more of the film's gibberish, wholly uninteresting backstory.

What else? Well the kids are all obnoxious, but like Ironside's limited role I expected that much going in. It's too much to ask of our modern slasher films to routinely give us anyone even remotely endearing (even Duff is grating), so it's only really a surprise and worth noting when a new slasher DOES give us at least two characters worth caring about. I've said this before, but it bears repeating - just because we're here to see a bunch of kids get offed, doesn't mean we should actively root for their deaths. The killer jumping out and stabbing someone isn't scary on its own; it's the fact that someone we like is in danger that really elevates the scare. You can (mostly) get away with a cast full of jerks when it's Jason Voorhees and the movie is the 12th in a series, but not in these things where this is our only chance to give a shit about ANYTHING that is presented on screen. Slasher filmmakers, consider this an assignment: aim to make your viewers angry enough to hate you when you kill off someone they love (and no, not a dog - think Randy in Scream 2, or Sarah Michelle Gellar in I Know What You Did Last Summer). If your mindset is "Let's make them such jerks you'll WANT to see them die!", just please quit making your movie right then and there - we have enough of those. Hell, *I* specifically have enough of those, as I'm sure I could write this exact same review for 5-6 of the other movies I've won over the past two years.

The guy playing the killer is at least trying to be memorable; when he's berating the kids it's easy to appreciate his presence (his "north and west" explanation to the most grating of the bunch is probably the only good moment in the entire movie), and I guess you can say the movie has a happy ending since he gets away without even a scratch - as the only halfway engaging presence in the film, I guess he deserves to live. Otherwise, the best thing I can say about the movie is that it's thankfully only 82 minutes instead of the 104 (!) promised on its IMDb page. The film was shot in 2011 and only surfaced on DVD earlier this year, and while that's not uncommon for independent productions (especially ones that neglected to rip off Paranormal Activity, at least for the past couple years - we've finally moved on for the most part), it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that the film was re-edited in an attempt to save it. The convoluted backstory (involving blackmail, insurance settlements, an unsolved disappearance, etc) probably got cut to the bone, as did the introductions (they arrive at the cabin a lot earlier than most movies of this type). I can't imagine any action was excised, but it wouldn't matter anyway - if anything could have saved this movie, adding more non-action would not be the way to do it.

So, yeah, a lousy start to this new goal. I can't guarantee I'll get one out to you every week, but I am determined to do so, mostly because I have too many damn movies laying around and would like to have that space back. My mild hoarder-ism has been costly (just this week I discovered that I had somehow lost parts to a model kit I started assembling a long time ago - I can't help but think if I had fewer boxes of random "STUFF" in my office, living room, and garage, they never would have been lost, as there only would be 1-2 places I could have tossed them aside), and my son is going to be walking real soon, so having stacks of movies here and there isn't safe. And it'd be even more upsetting if he got hurt because a stack of movies as bad as this fell on him.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Houses October Built (2014)

MARCH 2, 2015

GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE, MOCKUMENTARY
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

I almost wish I could give The Houses October Built a pass based on its concept (and even some of its execution), because it's kind of brilliant and more inspired than most found footage movies of late. Utilizing real "haunts" (the haunted houses or hayrides, zombie runs, etc that pop up just about everywhere during late September and October) to tell its story of five assho- er, people who are taking a tour of attractions in the days leading up to Halloween. They're looking for an underground group known as "Blue Skeleton" that is rumored to deliver the scariest experience ever, and seemingly pissing people off everywhere they go, allowing the movie two key assets that most FF movies lack.

The first asset is that this has more scares early on than most, because they're taking their cameras into the attractions which makes jump scares acceptable, plus they annoy the actors by filming, so there's almost always some sort of altercation that provides tension, at a time when most FF movies are still setting everything up and delaying the scares for logic's sake (as otherwise they'd stop filming). The other one is that the movie offers far more production value than most of its peers; the filmmakers all went to real attractions and either didn't care about release forms or had to put up a lot of those "By entering this location you're agreeing to be in a film..." notices, so the cast is kind of huge, giving it a scope that I don't think I've actually seen in a found footage movie.

But the huge cast is also part of the problem - there are just too many damn cameras, and our main group is too interchangeable for the movie's own good. It's hard enough to distinguish the four guys (one has a beard, that helps) at its center, but it makes it even harder when they're seemingly always running two cameras but not necessarily showing everyone else in the frame (and camera #1 never picks up camera #2, I don't think). Sometimes you can figure it out pretty quickly, other times the scene will nearly be over by the time you realize who is holding the camera, which is a pretty big issue, I think. It's a POV movie and you're not sure whose POV you're seeing. I've said before that I think too many modern FF movies falter by having the director or a regular cameraman shooting everything instead of one of the actors (which is why Blair Witch Project, where the trio of actors were the only ones to ever shoot anything*, works so much better than just about all of them), so it's a shame that this one just found a different way to shoot itself in the foot. That they're all kind of dickish doesn't help matters, but even if they were all super lovable I'd still spend a good chunk of the movie wondering whose eyes I was seeing it through.

Another big problem is kind of a weird one (spoilers ahead), which is that I wish it ended April Fool's Day style, with all of the terror our group faces being revealed to be a prank, that everything was indeed just the really intense haunted attraction that they were after (albeit way too elaborate). When the mysterious "Blue Skeleton" group finally catches up to them and kills/captures them all, it just feels like every other found footage movie that ends with most/all of the protagonists dying, where they had a perfect opportunity to do things differently - not to mention pull off perhaps the only satisfying "it wasn't real" ending in horror history. And the problem mentioned above is even worse here; it's bad enough when you don't know who is filming when it's just some random footage of a legit haunt, but kind of a major issue when it's someone being tortured.

Dumber still, the ending doesn't offer up the epilogue it should, which would be seeing our heroes' corpses used in a haunt. Earlier in the film, one of the characters explains that it doesn't bother him that he might be seeing an actual human leg in an attraction, because he wouldn't know - and he's right. It's dark, you're going through fast, and it's not like you're touching the things, so it's kind of an intriguing what if? scenario, and something the movie could have salvaged its bad ending with (giving one of them a tattoo on a body part that becomes a prop for audiences a year later would be the easy way to sell this concept). Or even having the heroes killed in plain sight of paying audiences (who would just assume it was part of the show) would be fine - basically anything beyond what they give us would have been better, as it's just plain baffling that it ends with something that doesn't pay off a single thing. What's the lesson to learn here? Don't go to haunted attractions? Be happy with the lame ones? I just don't get it.

The film is actually a pseudo remake of something the same team made three years ago (with the same title), but I can't find out too much about it - there's no review for it on its IMDb and director Zack Andrews is obnoxiously vague about how real/fake that one was, saying in an interview that he can't really explain that one's ending because his planned followup (this?) wouldn't work as well. So I guess I'd have to see it to know what he was talking about, but I won't be doing that. Even if I was interested enough to do so, it doesn't look like the original ever got picked up traditionally, so the only way to see it (that I can find) is on the bonus features of the 2014 one's DVD. Which I don't think is lying around in my house anywhere (I'm not joking; it's possible it is - I've won stuff at trivia that I've forgotten about), so I'd have to put effort into obtaining it. But for the record, it sounds like they did an S&Man thing where it's a legit documentary for the most part and then turns a corner once you're totally sold on the reality. It's probably better, honestly, but they didn't endear themselves to me nearly enough for me to want to sit through another 90 minutes of them swearing at each other (there are more F-bombs in this movie than there are in my house when I have to assemble furniture), so oh well. My advice: skip both versions and check out The American Scream, a legit documentary about homemade haunted house attractions that will make you yearn for the Halloween season, unlike this movie which made me glad we're far away from it and thus not currently being bombarded with similar nonsense.

What say you?

*Save for one shot early on where the guy explains Rustin Parr putting a kid in the corner, which was added later to help clarify the ending.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

FEBRUARY 26, 2015

GENRE: MAD SCIENTIST, RELIGIOUS
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

There aren't many real world references in The Lazarus Effect, so it's a bit odd that they opt to throw out a nod to "Cujo" regarding the potentially evil dog that our hero scientists resurrect before trying it on a human corpse. Cujo is, of course, a Stephen King story, and this movie is about the consequences of playing god and bringing someone back from the dead, which should almost certainly bring Pet Sematary to any horror fan's mind. So why establish that this is a world where King exists, but not go all out and mention Pet Sematary to get them off the hook for whatever story beats it copies (inadvertently or not)? It's like some weird, opposite version of having your cake and eating it too.

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that the movie, for better or worse, has the most accurate trailer I've seen in ages, as it promises exactly what the movie offers - nothing more, nothing less. It almost takes place in real time from the moment Olivia Wilde's character is resurrected (you've all seen the trailer, I assume, so I'm not spoiling anything), so there really isn't much of an opportunity to do anything but what the trailer shows; i.e. that Wilde is resurrected and is now evil. There are some plot threads that the trailer never hinted at, such as Ray Wise as a corporate bigwig who steals their formula once they've been banned from the school (because they challenged religious beliefs on school grounds, or something), but they're all go-nowhere bits that never come back - Wise has that one scene and is never heard from again. Even the damn dog disappears from the narrative, same as he does in the trailer, once Wilde becomes the main source of terror.

So you might complain that the movie is too basic, but in a way I found it kind of refreshing that there wasn't any big twist or hidden 3rd act. I remember folks being disappointed that Lucy (which this movie occasionally reminded me of; it even brings up the old "10% of the brain" thing) wasn't as much about an ass-kicking ScarJo as the trailer suggested, but something more spiritual/metaphysical (and even kind of touching, in the scene where she called her mom), so they should be happy that Lazarus Effect delivers 100% on its marketing promises, free of any challenge. I've said this before, but it bears repeating - the more complicated a horror movie is, the less likely it is to scare anyone, because you're keeping your brain tapped into different areas and not letting your guard down enough for a "boo!" moment to work. I can't tell you how scary any of the jumps are here, because I just don't get scared at such things, but the (very small) audience yelped a few times, even at the one from the trailer with the dog ("Maybe if we up the dosage we-"), so the "keep it simple" ploy seemed to work.

Personally, I found myself more entertained with the cast, almost none of whom show up in horror movies all that often. Donald Glover in particular has a nearly comedic-free role, and even sounded believable in the science/tech dialogue scenes; it's a shame he seems more interested in his rap career (I am not a fan) as he's more versatile actor than I would have guessed. Duplass has made a couple (including Mercy, another Blumhouse release) but he's still more known for his directing (and starring within) his own films, and the comedy show The League, than popping up in horror flicks, so that offers some novelty, and Wilde hasn't been in one since Turistas, nearly a decade ago! The actors all have a solid chemistry too, and they all genuinely like each other - you're bound to think of Flatliners as well as Sematary, and in that movie the characters were often at each others' throats, so it's nice to see a version of that story where they're all getting along and having each others' backs.

And it's got some touches I appreciated as a burnt-out horror viewer. When Wilde has to throw the switch to activate the life-giving serum, she needs to remove all of her jewelry first, which we see her do the first time around but she forgets the second (they're under a time limit because they had to break into the lab due to the aforementioned corporate meddling). But it's not telegraphed or anything; director David Gelb doesn't toss in a closeup of her ring or the empty petri dish where she's supposed to put those things, and even after she gets electrocuted no one says something helpful for the cheap seats like "Dammit, she didn't take off her jewelry!" No, they just expect you to remember this plot point from 20 minutes before, so it's nice for a modern PG-13 horror film to depend on audience intelligence for a change, even if it's rather minor (and in a goofy movie about people coming back to life with superpowers). And there's a moment where it seems like someone on the team has sold them out, giving video to Wise's people to further their own career or something, but it turns out to have a simpler, less generic explanation than the umpteenth "traitor in our midst" subplot that we've seen a zillion times.

But why don't they do anything else with the dog, dammit? Wilde gets telekinesis, can read minds, etc. All we know about the dog is that he likes to watch them and prefers junk food to the water they give him. He escapes from his cage and, unless I missed something (I stayed awake! But I did have to run out to blow my nose), is never seen again, though (spoiler) we hear him yelp off-screen to suggest Wilde has killed him too. But why? Wouldn't he, as a fellow returnee, be on her side for whatever it is she's trying to accomplish when she starts killing her friends? They really coulda done more with the dog, in my opinion. Well, I guess I could argue that they coulda done more with EVERYTHING since the movie is stripped to the bare essentials (it's only like 78 minutes minus the credits), but again I kinda liked that it was so to the point. Plus, real time (I can't be sure if it's 100% real time like Nick of Time or whatever, but it certainly FELT that way) is very rare in horror, so to even attempt it is noble enough an endeavor for me to give it my approval.

It's worth noting that I enjoyed the movie despite being in a bad mood to start. As I mentioned, it wasn't very crowded (not a surprise for a Thursday night showing, as outside of the summer these tend to be under-populated no matter what their eventual fortunes may be), but most of the people that were there came in during the trailers. The only other person there before me was a guy who, for whatever reason and regardless of the odds, had opted to sit in my seat (it's an assigned seating theater), forcing me to look like an idiot and say "You're in my seat" to the only other person in a theater that seated probably 200 people. It wasn't just the principle of the thing (I purposely chose the seat, dammit!), but since the odds were clearly stacked against me that evening, I didn't want to just take some other random seat and find out that one belonged to someone. But the guy didn't move! He's like "Just sit elsewhere, who cares?" (which, again, made some sense, being that it was a then-empty theater), so I just sat a few seats away, figuring I'd wait until the movie started to safely move to a better one. But of course, the only other people who came in also sat in the prime center sections of the rows behind him, so no matter what I'd be a. off to the side, or b. the weird guy sitting way too close to strangers in a still mostly empty theater. And this being a PG-13 horror movie, cell phone abuse was almost a certainty, so I just stayed where I was because no one else was in front of us (and going up closer would be too close to the screen for my tastes). What an asshole, but also, what the hell? Of all goddamn seats...

Anyway, it's a perfectly decent little horror thriller. It explained that Hell was what I believe it to be (not a place where you're set on fire or whatever, but merely an endless loop of the worst moment in your life, for eternity), so I was on board with its minor religious aspects, and it's the rare modern horror movie where I didn't hate a single character (even Evan Peters' stoner was fine). It could have been more fleshed out (and/or broke out of the Flatliners/Pet Sematary mold a bit more often) and it's a crime to hire Ray Wise and only let him have one scene, but like the year's only other major horror release so far (Woman in Black 2), it does what little it set out to do well, and for someone who barely gets to go to the movies anymore, that's enough for me to be satisfied. I'm easy to please when it gets me off diaper duty for a couple hours!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

FEBRUARY 25, 2015

GENRE: VAMPIRE, WEIRD
SOURCE: STREAMING (ONLINE SCREENER)

A lot of independent horror movies are referred to as "Lynchian" (meaning David, not Joe or Liam), and most of the time it's just shorthand for "Doesn't make sense". And that's fine, because it saves me the time of watching it, but every now and then the description is actually accurate and even complimentary. Such is the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which is basically Let The Right One In by way of Wild At Heart. The black and white photography will probably recall Eraserhead (or even Elephant Man) for those looking for Lynch's aesthetic, but it was Wild At Heart that I kept thinking about, as the film is a love story with a pretty straightforward narrative, peppered with weirdness, much like Heart (one of Lynch's most "normal" movies).

Both films also display an affinity for good ol' rock n' roll, with Girl making particularly good use of "Death" from the band White Lies, much like Jennifer's Body did a few years back. It's the only thing you hear in one of the standout sequences, where our hero Arash and the titular girl (named The Girl) begin to fall in love as they groove along to the music - it's very rare for a film to use an entire song for one sequence, and even rarer in horror, so that it's done over a scene that would be a highlight even if mute makes it quite memorable. I even rewound the movie to enjoy it again, which isn't something I do very often. Ironically, this scene is one of the few (OK, several) that I missed entirely when I saw the film a few weeks ago at the Cinefamily, as I was exhausted as always and the film was very slow paced, making "resting my eyes" all too easy a task. It's why I didn't review it then; I saw enough to know I liked it, but I knew my resulting review would be vague.

Hilariously, I thought I slept through MORE of the film than I actually had, because I only saw the two lovers together very briefly during my theatrical viewing. I assumed there were giant chunks of their blossoming relationship that I had completely missed, but now that I watched it in its entirety I can see that they actually don't spend much of the movie together. They don't even meet until the film is nearly half over, and while it and their next encounter are fairly long scenes, those are pretty much it until the film's closing moments. But the length (and that song!) actually make up for the usual frequency - you buy their feelings for each other even though you haven't spent a lot of time with them together.

The rest of the movie is given over to the film's other characters; it's a compact cast (maybe 8-9 people of note) but they all warrant their moment(s) in the spotlight. Even though many of them aren't exactly upstanding citizens (a drug dealer, Arash's junkie dad, a prostitute, a lazy street kid, etc), there's something endearing about how they all seem to know each other, and writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour deftly creates a complete dynamic, even though I'm pretty sure you never see more than 3 people in any given scene. Arash's junkie father is in deep to the drug dealer, who steals Arash's car and uses it to pick up Atti (the prostitute), who later runs into our Girl (the vampire of the lot), who... you get the idea. It's not really an ensemble, as it's clearly Arash and The Girl's story, but the movie never feels like it's being padded when Amirpour turns her attention elsewhere.

As for the weirdness, there isn't a lot - just enough for you to notice and make the movie that much more memorable. The movie begins with our hero grabbing a cat from someone's yard for some reason, there's a musical interlude with a guy (sort of in drag) waltzing with a helium balloon, and apparently this city (named Bad City) just has a giant pit of bodies that no one seems to think much about. And the scary drug dealer guy (who has the best voicemail message of all time: "Leave a message, hooker") has a Pac-Man tattoo, which makes him look like a goof. The quirkiness is balanced with some legit drama, too; while I have little sympathy for junkies I couldn't help but feel sorry for Arash's dad, who begs Atti not for sex but just to hang out with him, only for her to say he could when he had the money for it. It's interesting; if you were to just write down everything that happened in the movie in general, you'd think it was the boringest film ever made, but these little moments make it almost electric at times - there's always something just a little off-center to make it stick out.

As for the vampire stuff, there isn't a hell of a lot; The Girl feeds on a supporting character every now and then, and quite hungrily so (yay for finger biting!), but it's only a horror movie in the sense that it's about a vampire and vampires need blood. I guess some of her earlier scenes, before she meets Arash, are kind of spooky because she is usually just standing there watching a would-be victim, or following them down the street, but the stillness and usual silence of these scenes keep the movie from feeling like a full blown vampire horror. Much like last year's (even better) Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampirism is part of the characterization in a romantic drama, and thus you shouldn't go in expecting Near Dark or whatever. Even the previously mentioned Let The Right One In indulges in its horrific side more often, and the rare complaints I heard about THAT film concerned its limited "action" from folks who expected more carnage. If you thought LTROI wasn't terror-driven enough, for the love of God do not watch this movie, because I don't want to inadvertently read your eyeroll-inducing reaction. Still, it should be stressed, since the movie is being sold on the strength of being "the first Iranian vampire movie", not "the first Iranian offbeat romantic drama with a vampire who occasionally bites someone".

It'll be out on Blu and DVD in April, in a jam-packed special edition to boot, so keep an eye out for it if you didn't catch it on the festival circuit or during its limited theatrical run. If you enjoyed the aforementioned movies, it should be a fairly safe blind buy, otherwise at least give it a shot on Netflix Instant or whatever if/when it pops up; even if you hate it you'll have to admit there's nothing quite like it - which in the modern genre scene is something worth noting and respecting.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Animal (2014)

FEBRUARY 11, 2015

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Because John Carpenter is a god, somewhere over the years the usual NOTLD plot (itself inspired from Stagecoach) of folks holed up against a common enemy became more of an Assault on Precinct 13 riff, where the people who were banded together were usually enemies of some sort before they had to put aside their differences. Not that there's anything wrong with that - I myself am always won over by "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" type plotting (it's why I loved Prison Break so much) - but I must admit I was kind of relieved to see that Animal went back to the NOTLD way, where there's one guy that's an asshole, but otherwise there's no major conflict to overcome, no big speeches about how they have to work together or they'll die, etc. It's just a bunch of folks, trapped in a cabin, trying to stave off a big ol' monster. Simple, easy... and surprisingly effective.

No, it won't win any points for originality with regards to its plot; in fact it starts off so generic I almost relegated it to "something on in the background while I play with my Legos" (I got THESE for Christmas; I am now making little 'sets' for them to hang out in). It had the Carpenter font, which is getting way overused now that all the people who grew up on JC are making their own movies, and also a group of five college-aged kids heading off into the woods for camping, i.e. the most generic horror setup of all time (and, nothing against Chiller, but I wouldn't bet on them pulling a Cabin in the Woods level twist on us anytime soon). The only reason I opted to give it a few more minutes was because the male hero was Parker Young, who was the youngest brother on the great, sadly canceled Enlisted. He played kind of an idiot on that show, so it was fun to see him as an alpha male type here.

But what REALLY kept me going was (spoiler) the fact that he was the first to go. It's hardly the first movie to pull this stunt, and honestly I would have pegged him to die first if I had gotten to that point, but the movie did it much earlier than I was expecting, and on a solid jump scare to boot. And then the others run into a cabin where they meet up with a trio of older folks (including an actual Prison Break cast member! Amaury "Sucre" Nolasco to be precise), at which point I realized that the opening bit, where we see four familiar actors running from the monster (and one of them dying) WASN'T a flash forward, as I originally thought/lamented, and finally realized that a lot of the generic seeming stuff was indeed meant to throw us off. Well played, screenwriters. Then again, I should have known better since it was directed by Brett Simmons, who is now 3 for 3 in my book after the solid Husk and quite enjoyable Monkey's Paw (the latter also for Chiller). Like Sheldon Wilson, he's proven supplier of what I think of as "B+ horror", where he takes something that could be the most anonymous and forgettable movie ever and gives it enough of its own identity to be memorable. These aren't films that will blow you away, but they're a damn sight better than the stuff they'll be lumped with, and shows how much just a little bit of effort can turn a routine movie into one that I can happily recommend to fans looking for some monster action.

Part of that effort is easy to spot - the monster is a practical beast (by Gary Tunnicliffe), instead of the CGI thing that Syfy would offer us. I'm sure it had some digital touch-ups, but what's important is that there was an actual thing tearing at our actors and banging on the makeshift means of protection they cobbled together, giving them something real to react to instead of a tennis ball or whatever. And it's actually not that bad looking; it's kind of a cross between Pumpkinhead (the original, not the Asylum mockbuster version seen in Bloodwings) and a rat, but it's got hoof type feet and shark like teeth. You could easily assume that there will be a secret lab introduced in the 3rd act where we find out that the monster is a genetic hybrid created to be the perfect killing machine or whatever, but thankfully there's no exposition or backstory - it just IS. On the commentary (or maybe the making of, I forget now) it is pointed out that whenever there's a big disaster on the ocean they discover all these new forms of sea life, so the idea was that as the deforestation process gets deeper and deeper into the woods, some previously undiscovered animals would be found now that their habitat was destroyed. It's a good enough explanation for me, and it's not even in the movie!

Simmons and writers Thommy Hutson & Catherine Trillo also keep finding ways of giving usual cliches a little bit of extra character, which doesn't really change the fact that they are cliches, but at least proves they're smart enough to avoid doing carbon copies. I see so many movies where I have to wonder if the writers think they're the first to come up with something or if they're just incredibly lazy, so it's nice to see one where they seem to be saying "We know we're not the first, but we might be the first to do it this way!". For example, as with all modern horror movies featuring a group of pals, there's some infidelity going on, but the particulars are inspired (and even a bit daring), and the final girl is seen primping herself and explaining that her average looks need to be enhanced, unlike her more naturally beautiful pal. It's an unusual touch, and while they make some unsuccessful attempts to make us think she's NOT the final girl, it's a lot better than the usual virginal prude.

The other thing that I appreciated has to do with the body count, so skip this paragraph if you want to go in more blind. For those still reading, I liked how they sort of had their cake and ate it too with regards to the deaths; for a while it seemed like they were going for a more Tremors kind of thing where they let more survive than they kill off; out of the nine people in the movie I think six of them are still standing when there's only 15 minutes left before the credits start to roll. But then the monster just goes apeshit and knocks off all but one in the span of like 10 minutes! You start to get the impression that maybe there won't even BE a Final Girl, but they don't quite go that far (however, on the commentary Simmons explains that they debated over which of the final two characters to kill, so there's something).

I keep mentioning the commentary, and for good reason - it's a pretty solid track, especially considering it's a solo one. Simmons immediately points out the Carpenter font, putting me at ease, and says he wanted to have full credits over black because you never see them anymore (and he's right!), so I was on board with him pretty quickly. He barely ever pauses as he goes into detail about the locations (all practical), the monster, the cast, the production (apparently fans of the actors would hang out in the woods wearing dark clothes and facepaint hoping to sneak glimpses at them), his influences, etc. You can tell he's proud of the movie, and rightfully so - it does exactly what it set out to do and did it well, which is more than we can say for a great deal of modern horror movies (even bigger theatrical ones). It may LOOK like a generic monster movie on the surface, but the devil's in the details, and they got a lot of those right.

The commentary is the only extra worth your time, however; if you select "cast interviews" you'll be treated to what is essentially the film's trailer (also provided) with MAYBE 20 seconds' worth of interview footage sprinkled throughout, where the actors basically say their name and who they play, with maybe one piece of info about them for good measure. And then there's a teaser trailer that bizarrely makes the film look like a found footage entry (no one in the movie has a video camera, and none of the footage is in the film). The making of is OK I guess, but it's too brief (4 minutes?) to be of any real use unless you want a couple of quick glimpses at the creature design process (something that deserved its own featurette). But I must admit I liked that there were no deleted scenes - a movie this to the point, made by people who know the genre well? I'd be willing to bet there weren't any, because they all knew better than to write/film/digitize stuff they'd eventually toss anyway. Good stuff.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

What Have You Done To Solange? (1972)

FEBRUARY 3, 2015

GENRE: GIALLO
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REVIVAL SCREENING)

The title character in What Have You Done To Solange? (this version was titled The School That Couldn't Scream, for the record) doesn't even get mentioned until about 70 minutes into the 100ish minute film, and then it's another 10 or so before you actually see her. Given her importance to the plot and the killer's motivation for offing a half dozen teenaged girls (and one maid, and a dog), you'd think they'd get around to introducing her sooner, but since this is a Giallo, if anything it's kind of generous to let us know what the hell is going on so relatively early. I've seen some where they'd save that sort of information for the final scene (if ever), so while it's still impossible to solve the mystery more than two or three seconds before the heroes, it makes this one of the more coherent and accessible ones I've seen.

And that's hilarious, because the hero is a teacher who is banging one of his students, a fact that almost no one seems particularly concerned or angry about. I can't recall the exact line, but his boss even suggests it's beneficial at one point, saying that he can get the girls to admit certain things to him that they'd hide from the other professors. His wife even knows about it, but while she's understandably angry about it, she gets over it pretty quickly and comforts him after his teenage lover is (rather surprisingly) killed at the halfway point. What a gal! The cop investigating the murders thinks he's a suspect at first, mostly going on the whole "you're sleeping with a teenager" angle since I assume that sort of thing usually ends badly, but before long he's on his side, basically telling others to mind their business when the hero's indiscretions are brought up.

Anyway, it's more procedural mystery than horror; there's a pretty great POV kill scene in there, and the hero's girlfriend (who is a knockout, and was 21 at the time of filming so I can say that all I want) has flashes of the murders, but otherwise it's mostly aftermath - the hero or the cop will figure out that they need to talk to this or that person, and arrive to find them already dead. I guess that's the trade off; director/co-writer Massimo Dallamano opted to tell a coherent story and flesh out his characters, so as a result he doesn't spend much time on nonsense or drawn out kill scenes. It's got the random misogyny and gratuitous nudity you'd expect (including a hilarious bit where the cop says "The girls are under surveillance" and then Dallamano cuts to a peeping tom watching the girls shower), but if you go in expecting Argento-y kill scenes you might leave disappointed.

Luckily it didn't take long for me to realize that wouldn't be the case, and I got into it. The night's first film was a snooze called Death Laid An Egg, which was the slow paced and obnoxiously scored account of a man being set up for murder by his secretary and her lover, and if Solange didn't do it for me I would have just left (that's the nice thing about not being on the HMAD "clock" anymore - I don't have to keep watching something I dislike just to make my daily quota), but even though I was tired I powered through, determined to know who took that gorgeous girl (Cristina Galbó, for the record - she was also in the early proto-slasher The House That Screamed) out of the movie. Of course, I did nod off for a bit of the 3rd act (missing Solange's introduction! She's played by Camille Keaton, by the way - it was her debut), but thankfully a pretty thorough IMDb synopsis and a non-subtitled Youtube clip of the film's 2nd half (if part 1 was there, I didn't see it) filled in the 10 minutes or so that I missed. With the kid and all, I could have very easily have slept through the entire movie, since it didn't start until 9:30 or so (the next night I went to bed at 10, in fact), so I was pretty proud of myself for seeing as much as I did.

And again I chalk that up to a rather straightforward story. I realized the last time I watched Suspiria, where I, as I always do, fell asleep 30 minutes in - the nuttiness and intensity of that first reel or so kind of exhausts me, so when the movie finally pauses to catch its breath I collapse (at the time I compared it to the fact that men tend to fall asleep right after they orgasm). Here, it's more like a good page-turner - our hero is a pretty good detective, and the clues, while occasionally a bit random, are doled out just often enough to keep you engaged. I don't know how likely some of them would be in real life (a major plot point involves the hero quickly discerning that the killer would have one dead girl's Italian book - and then just as quickly locating it in the killer's home near the climax), but in the context of the movie they work just fine.

Apparently Dallamano made a pseudo sequel called What Have They Done to Your Daughters?, which has a new cast of characters but (from what I understand) is set at the same school. I'd like to check it out someday, but first I must see the director's The Night Child, an evil child film that predated The Omen (worth nothing since the actor on the poster resembles Gregory Peck). Doesn't look like he made any other traditional Gialli other than this and Daughters, which is a shame because he seems to be pretty good at making them (unless this is just a fluke). It is one of my great regrets that I didn't see more Gialli during the regular part of the site's run, but that doesn't mean I can't make up for it when time allows - however it's easier when I have a strong reason to check a specific title out, i.e. because I liked something else from the director. Luckily, with the New Bev* drawing heavily from QT's own collection for their programming now, I assume such titles will play more often, and I'll do my best to make time to check them out.

What say you?

* Yes, I went to the Bev. From what I understand, things have been worked out, the source of many of the problems there has been tossed on his/her ass, and Michael Torgan is back working at the theater (though he wasn't there tonight). I still don't particularly care for the fact that they got rid of the digital projector (just today on Twitter, a filmmaker was informing them that a movie the theater was asking to play only exists digitally and thus can't be shown there probably ever), but if Michael's back then I guess things are OK. I still doubt that HMAD screenings will ever return since they have a new approach to midnight stuff now, but at least I can go back and sit in my favorite seat once again. I really missed it.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Atticus Institute (2015)

JANUARY 21, 2015

GENRE: POSSESSION
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Now that we've come to our senses and the found footage sub-genre (which it sadly became, even though it's not a genre) has died down considerably, distributors will hopefully be more choosy when it comes to the titles they select to push. Gone are the days where "Oh it's like Paranormal Activity!" can entice anyone, so the filmmakers still trying to cash in on the trend will see their films bought for pennies and dumped on budget packs, while the more interesting ones like The Atticus Institute will get a nice blu-ray release from Anchor Bay. It's not going to revive the dying style, but it's certainly a step above the dreck that we were inundated with in the earlier part of the decade.

Of course, part of that quality upgrade stems from the fact that it's not the usual found footage thing - it's a full blown (fake) documentary, with video footage from the experiment in the 1970s mixed with present day talking head bits featuring the people who survived what happened 40 years ago. It's a rare approach to take with this sort of thing, and thankfully the filmmakers didn't opt to put old age makeup on the actors - they're just played by different people (including the great Harry Groener). Sure, they don't look all that much like their counterparts (though the one main military guy is a decent match), but that actually kind of works in a way, if you look at the 1970s scenes as recreation of a real event, sort of like how Unsolved Mysteries worked. Indeed, this is basically a feature length UM episode - the ending is ambiguous, and the survivors are still looking for closure on certain things. All that's missing is Robert Stack and his trenchcoat (don't you dare invoke the Dennis Farina era on my watch).

Another thing working in its favor is the involvement of the military in a possession tale. The story hits all of the beats of your average Exorcist wannabe, complete with a 3rd act priest who hadn't been involved in the story (actually he never appeared at all, so that's more of an Exorcist III homage), but it's fairly rare to invoke the usual black-suited hardasses who of course just want to use the possessed woman (Judith) as a weapon. Since she can read minds and use telekinesis, the idea is that she'll not only be an asset for intelligence ("Hey, read that crazy dictator's mind - who is he planning to attack?") but also assassinations - who could possibly identify her as the killer if she just sat there and used her powers to transfer a heavy object into someone's noggin? So it's got Exorcist DNA, but also The Fury, which I must respect - not enough people reference that one, as far as I'm concerned.

However, it feels a bit stretched thin, particularly in the middle section when we know what's going on but have to wait until the exorcism attempts can begin. There's a good 3-4 minutes devoted to Groener telling a story about how he found a paper clip in Judith's cell and a week later it fell out of his pocket at his nephew's birthday party, which resulted in the dumb kid sticking it into an outlet and being electrocuted (and presumably killed, unless I missed it they never actually say, though they do talk about him in the past tense). Not sure why a kid would be off by himself fucking with paper clips at his own birthday party, but this is too long and complicated a diversion to be really scary - it's not even directly chalked up to Judith's actions! There's a far better version of the same idea earlier in the movie, where Judith gets under another scientist's skin by mocking her for not being there when her mother had died - it's direct, it's creepy (she obviously would have had no idea that the woman had been carrying that guilt), and it causes an immediate reaction - the scientist leaves the room, upset... and then runs back in and attacks Judith, who has a shit-eating grin on her face. For the Groener character, he just quits and feels terrible - there's not even a scene of his 70s counterpart confronting her.

I was also bummed to see a wholly terrible CGI effect in the film's closing moments, when someone is killed via psychic gut exploding (like the head in Scanners - just lower!). Not only does it not look good in the slightest (and the blood pooling on the chest seems to shift around unnaturally - it looks more like someone dropped some tomato sauce or something on your TV), but the movie had otherwise done a fine job of recreating 70s aesthetics with its footage, and this spoils the illusion at a crucial time (i.e. when the movie's just about over and you're about to pass your final judgment). The clothing and hairstyles are a solid match, but that's easy enough - I was more impressed by the set design and even the video footage - it looks dated, but they don't overboard like far too many filmmakers do when aging their footage with filters. With at least half of the movie set in the 70s, it'd be really grating to see excessive scratches, specks, glitching, etc over all of it, and thankfully writer/director Chris Sparling (directing a feature solo for the first time) understood that. Less is more!

(side note - Sparling's name seemed familiar to me, and I was surprised to see he was the writer of ATM, one of the dumbest goddamn movies I've ever seen. Hopefully that and not this was the fluke.)

The Blu has an OK brief making of featurette that sadly ends with the cast (including William Mapother, giving his scenes some Dharma Initiative flair) getting spooked by an off-screen banging, claiming that the production has been haunted like that. Come on guys. You can do better. Otherwise it's a decent little piece, with Mapother explaining the difficulties of getting into character to create so many tiny little bits (photographs, surveillance footage of walking down a corridor, etc), though I wish they had spent more time on putting together the retro sets on a low budget. The deleted scenes collection is of more use; nothing essential but it adds to something that was my overall favorite thing about the movie: it was really fleshed out for something that was completely made up. I was actually momentarily fooled into thinking maybe Atticus was a real place (it's not), as they do a fairly good job of establishing its credentials and history, with lots of superfluous details that just make it feel more "lived in". So the scenes just add to that, even if on their own they're not particularly exciting and belonged excised.

It's a shame the mock-doc genre got so flooded that a movie that's just pretty good seems like a breath of fresh air; like 3D I think this approach can be a terrific tool and a fun/interesting way to present certain narratives, but greedy producers just applied it to everything and got the audience turned against it; striking while the iron is hot rather than ensure it stayed that way. It'll likely be a long time before it can be revived again by something really special, the way Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield did in 1999 and 2008, respectively - but until then I'm fine with perfectly decent entries like this helping to wash the bad taste of dreck like Amber Alert and Zombie Diaries out of our mouths until we are able to look at the aesthetic as something to be excited about again.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Annabelle (2014)

JANUARY 19, 2015

GENRE: SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

It never would have happened if I was still on the clock for the "A DAY" part of the site's name, but I missed Annabelle in theaters last fall due to my dumb decision to move during October, which is always so busy anyway. I COULD have gone one day instead of seeing Dracula Untold, but Badass wanted a review of that and the times just happened to work less in Annabelle's favor. By the time I had time again, it was gone (which is why I ended up seeing fucking Ouija), and trust me it bummed me out - I hadn't missed a major horror release theatrically since 2008 (Quarantine, also a casualty of a busy October), and this was one I actually wanted to see! I rarely request blu-rays for review anymore for the same busy reasons, opting to just pick and choose from the ones I get automatically, but I made an exception here as I didn't want to let it slide any longer.

Of course, the real reason I'm so busy these days is because of the baby; daycare dropoffs, doctor's appointments, extra trips to Target and the grocery store, etc, plus, obviously, just spending time with him eats up many of the hours I otherwise would be spending in front of the TV, which is why a movie like Annabelle probably works on me better than it should. While it's forever going to be known as a killer doll movie, Chucky this ain't - with some snips it could have almost worked as a psychological piece about a mother unraveling, not unlike the recent Babadook or Canal (a dad in that one). Many of the film's scares used basic parental fears as their jumping off point (stuff falling on the baby, baby getting out of its crib, etc), and it set the tone by having the pregnant mom get stabbed by an intruder around 10 minutes in, easily hooking in worry-wort dads like me.

I wrote more about this aspect for Badass, so I don't want to repeat myself too much - go read that if you're interested in how the movie works on a parent. For non-parents, or at least ones that have learned to calm down and not think your child is in danger every second (unlike me), I'm here to tell you that the movie is pretty decent, considering all that it had working against it. It's a prequel (red flag, automatically, and don't bring Godfather II into this as it's half sequel) to one of the most acclaimed studio horror films in recent memory, but it didn't have James Wan directing - his frequent DP John Leonetti took over the reins. And while normally the idea of keeping it in the family is a fine one, Leonetti seems to have a strange knack for directing much-hated followups: his previous films are Butterfly Effect 2 (the worst one of the series!) and the abysmal Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. It also lacked the Warrens, who are the real-life keepers of the real Annabelle doll (which is a Raggedy Ann, for the record - rights issues had them create their own for the movie) and were a big part of why The Conjuring was more interesting than the usual haunted house movie. In fact I think the entire movie is made up; it's hard to even say "Well the doll is real" when it's not the same one, nor is it using any of the real doll's backstory.

Because, as you might have guessed from the "It scared me as a parent!" intro, this movie doesn't focus on Donna and Angie, the college students who owned the doll (a gift from Donna's mother) and were the inspiration for the characters we met in the Conjuring's opening sequence (which we see a few seconds of again here, though Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are nowhere in sight). As they got the doll from a store in used condition, no one - not even the Warrens - knows the full story of how it came to be haunted/possessed, and so the filmmakers have made it up (whether they applied an existing script to the story or wrote it from scratch is unknown). What they've offered is a bit of a Rosemary's Baby riff at times, complete with a Manson connection - the plot kicks off when some cult members murder our hero couple's neighbors and then make their way into their own home, stabbing the mother (the baby is OK!) and smearing blood all over the doll, which other than being creepy - like all dolls of that type are - was seemingly normal until that point.

But unlike Chucky, who also got his start after a run-in with a murderer, Annabelle doesn't move or talk. I had feared that when they decided to make a full movie about her that they'd stoop to making her an animated being, instead of the motionless creep factory we met in Conjuring, but they stay the course and keep her still. There's one bit where she seems to be levitating, and I was just about to roll my eyes when I (and Mia, the heroine) realized that the doll was being held up by the demon that had latched itself onto it. Said demon is played by Joe Bishara, who performed similar duties for Insidious (the red lipstick one) and Conjuring (I forget, it was a woman though if memory serves), and works as the composer, and the makeup design is the most elaborate yet, I think. You see the process on one of the featurettes, and it seems to take hours to apply - all for a character whose presence is (thankfully, otherwise) kept to a minimum. In a time when CGI beasties are used more and more often, I truly appreciate spending the time to make a practical one when it's only going to be on-screen for a few seconds.

So without much of a presence to the demon, and Annabelle just sitting there, the movie is admittedly a bit stretched for a feature, doling out the needed plot points (calling a priest, someone getting hurt/killed, etc) a bit further apart than probably necessary. And that's why I think it might have gotten a lion's share of bad reviews (its Rotten Tomatoes score is below even a few of the Saw movies), because in between those bits it's mostly coasting on parental fears, which is fine for me but "boring" to those who can't sympathize with the terror we feel at every single little thing (I've since discovered the screenwriter is a parent himself, so he was likely drawing on the same things I'm afraid of - i.e. heavy objects falling on the baby due to an earthquake. He just has a demon sub in for the earthquake). Perhaps they drew too much on this and didn't make it scary or exciting enough for the non-parents (I'd say teens, but with an R rating they shouldn't have been trying to appease them anyway), but I assume EVERYONE can get behind the film's two biggest scare scenes: the home invasion early on, and the big basement sequence around the halfway mark.

The finale is also pretty tense, but unfortunately some folks have chosen to focus on the "racist" elements of it, which I find ludicrous. Spoilers ahead!

The heroine makes friends with Alfre Woodard, who owns a bookstore and is living with heavy guilt over her daughter's death (she fell asleep driving them home from a family gathering), and throughout the movie she's nothing but wonderful to Mia. So I almost wondered if they were going to throw in a twist where she was evil (to explain the over kindness), but as it turns out she really is just that great, and sacrifices herself to save Mia and the baby (and hopefully reunite with her daughter in the afterlife). For whatever reason, I've read more than one person see this as a hugely uncomfortable moment, because Ms. Woodard is black and the people she is saving are white, as if the filmmakers were saying "well they're expendable". To me it seems like a can't win scenario - if the character (who, again, is kind and successful and caring... and wanted to make amends for losing her daughter!) was white, people would complain that the movie was nothing but white people. And if the colors were reversed, it'd be dismissed as "another white savior" movie. Did it not cross these reviewers' minds that Alfre Woodard is just a great actress playing a role that wasn't determined by race, and people should just be happy they were able to secure her talents for "a killer doll movie"? I was actually happy that the film - which took place in the 60s - had a successful black woman and didn't make any big deal about it, only to find naysayers made it one on their own. Ms. Woodard isn't starved for work (she was in last year's Best Picture winner and currently stars as the President of the United States on State of Affairs), and with a 6 million total budget they couldn't have been paying her a fortune; I'm sure she would have turned down the role if she found it racially insensitive that her character died to save some white people.

The blu-ray has four bland featurettes that are in no way useful to anyone (except, as mentioned, seeing some of the makeup work for the demon), but the deleted scenes are definitely worth a look. In addition to a few more "as a parent this is my worst nightmare" bits (including one where the demon boils the bathwater!), there's a character named Fuller that, if my hours-old memory of the movie serves, was completely excised from the final version. He's the building's handyman, and he seems like a nice guy who's just a little off, which scares Mia every time she is forced to encounter him. One of the featurettes mentions his death (?) scene, which ISN'T among the collection, but I was surprised at how many of them had some scares (including a full blown FX sequence where the demon tears all the furniture asunder), instead of the usual "this was cut for pacing" (translation: "We cut this because it's character stuff that 15 year-olds would get bored by") footage. There isn't any explanation for their removal, and some are hard to place in the narrative, but they're still a notch above what you usually find in the cut material.

As I mentioned in my Badass piece, I'd really love to see a breakdown of the reviews between parents and non-parents, to see if the rare good reviews it got were from critics with children of their own. It's not exactly a classic even within those parameters, but it's better than I had been led to believe by (non parent!) pals who saw it last fall. Or perhaps it simply works better at home since it's a primarily interior-set movie? Or maybe they wanted Annabelle to do THIS? I dunno. I saw seething hatred from some people, and it baffled me - it's just a pretty decent little movie I won't remember in a year, same as most studio horror movies. Why was this a target?

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

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